As it heads into its fifth and final season, the small Spanish drama has grown into one of the most-devoured shows in Netflix history.

Every worldwide phenomenon has to start somewhere, and in this case, that place was a hammock on a beach in Panama. There lay Álex Pina, trying to dream up his next project. It was 2016 and the Spanish producer had just wrapped Vis a Vis, a brutal drama about day-to-day life in a women’s prison. He wanted this new venture to be lighter in tone and needed it to be cheap to produce—something that he could film almost entirely in a studio but with a premise so explosive that it would make you forget you were stuck within the same four walls. As he lounged, his mind drifted toward the possibilities.

What about… a heist?

Okay, yes, a heist. Pina got together with his team and soon they were on a roll. This heist would take place inside the Royal Mint of Spain (which would conveniently satisfy the real-life in-studio requirements), where the perpetrators would take the employees hostage and print billions of euros for themselves. The show would have the flashbacks and the ballsiness of Reservoir Dogs, spiced up with the surreal black comedy of Spanish director Luis García Berlanga.​​ The characters? An outcast gang of career criminals brought together by a mysterious brainy figure known as The Professor. They were each assigned a code name corresponding to a major city: Tokyo, Rio, Berlin, Moscow, Nairobi, Helsinki, Oslo, and Denver (one of these things is not like the others), a random decision that would turn out to be inadvertently prescient. A wardrobe of crimson jumpsuits and Salvador Dalí masks would give the show a bold stamp of pop iconography.

The final product, La Casa de Papel, premiered on the Spanish station Antena 3 in 2017 and it did… pretty good! By season two the ratings cratered, and the production shut down. The cast and crew packed it in and returned to their lives and families.

But even before it first aired, Pina had slipped a flash drive with the pilot to Diego Ávalos, a V.P. at Netflix. The streaming giant had an ongoing licensing relationship with Antena 3 and Pina, which turned out to be fortuitous for both parties. “I watched it on the plane ride back to L.A. and knew there was something special”, Ávalos says.

The streaming platform asked Pina to recut it into more digestible chunks—from 15 long episodes to 22—and added subtitles and dubbing, a few small modifications that primed it for a much larger potential audience. For English-speaking markets, the show was renamed Money Heist, a title so hilariously simple that it circles back around to wild and brilliant. Otherwise, Ávalos tells me that they put exactly “zero marketing dollars” toward the first season.

It was an astute addition to the Netflix catalog. By 2018, Money Heist skyrocketed to become the most watched non-English-language program on the platform (in early 2021, that distinction belonged to Lupin, a French series about a preposterously charming thief) and cracked the top five for most watched series overall. The ability to binge without commercial breaks turned out to be exactly what was missing. “Having to wait until the following week can seem fragmented”, Pina says. “This can make the viewer not really get into the series, or into a state of addiction”. Netflix has since released two more seasons to satisfy demand, and now fans are impatiently awaiting the fifth and final season, which will drop in two parts: five episodes in September and five in December. The close hold that Netflix keeps on its streaming numbers is tighter than the security at the Royal Mint of Spain, but it has revealed that 65 million households tuned into season four soon after its release. If you made an autonomous Republic of Money Heist Watchers, it would be the 23rd most populous country in the world, sandwiched between the United Kingdom and Tanzania.

The statistics are one thing, the massive cultural wave the show kicked off is another. Take the distinct outfits the characters wear as disguises, which director Jesús Colmenar pushed for. “George Lucas says, ‘Everyone knows what the Star Wars characters look like'”, he tells me. “I wanted that same thing”. It worked: The red jumpsuits and Dalí masks began cropping up everywhere, from protests against sexist and homophobic leaders in Puerto Rico to soccer games in Greece. Real-life criminals in Brazil, India, and France staged copycat robberies. Stephen King and Neymar raved about the show, and Bad Bunny referenced it on multiple tracks. The show’s anthem, “Bella Ciao”—a protest folk song written by laborers in 19th-century Italy and then adopted by antifascist partisans during World War II—became a revitalized hit, inspiring several covers, including an EDM remix by Steve Aoki. On TV, the fictional band of thieves end up winning the hearts of the public, a parallel that played out in real life too.

Instant fame struck each of the actors in a specific, bizarre way—made even stranger by the fact that this was for work that they had long moved past. Úrsula Corberó, who portrays Money Heist’s feisty narrator, Tokyo, breaks into an electrifying grin when she remembers how the realization of her celebrity hit her. At the end of 2017, she was at a New Year’s Eve party in Uruguay with her boyfriend and his family. “Suddenly everybody started coming up to me and saying, ‘Tokyo, you’re a goddess, you’re incredible, I love you'”, Corberó tells me rapidly. Not quite understanding what was happening, she thought: What are the odds that all four people who watched the show happen to be at this party right now?

Miguel Herrán, the actor behind Rio, a boyish hacker and Tokyo’s love interest, says he watched his Instagram followers tick-tick-tick up from 50,000 to 1 million over the course of a 45-minute car ride. Esther Acebo, or Stockholm, so named because she’s a bank employee who’s held hostage before switching sides, was also overwhelmed by a flood of social media attention. “My phone started beeping like crazy, kind of like a slot machine where all the cherries line up”, she says. “Then it just turned off”. Pedro Alonso, who plays Berlin, the gang’s resident sociopath, says he was in Florence admiring the statue of David, “just studying this beautiful sculpture”, when he suddenly realized that everyone else in the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze was staring at him instead of Michelangelo’s masterpiece.

Pina recalls driving through Italy with the actors shortly after fans started losing their minds. “People were running after us like we were the Rolling Stones”, he tells me. “We thought: The world is upside down. What’s happening?”

But why Money Heist? And why—no, how—did it keep us captivated when the temptation of constant entertainment is a mere smartphone tap away and we all have the attention spans of Petco goldfish? Well, for starters, the series grabs you within the first minute and hooks you up to a steady IV drip of high-octane action. The twists are constant and clever: Think Soderbergh, but with the melodrama cranked up to 11. For all the show’s fun, it also taps into the widespread anger and indignation bubbling in the aftermath of the worldwide financial crisis. “The series is meant to entertain, but an idea runs underneath. Skepticism toward governments, central banks, the system”, Pina told The Guardian last year. Another bit of universal appeal? The characters are lovable, well wrought, and, let’s be frank, genetically blessed. If there’s one thing humanity can agree on despite our differences, it’s that we enjoy watching supremely hot people fight and have sex.

After the first two installments hit big, Netflix came to Pina with a proposal to revive the show for a third season. So in late 2018, he got the gang back together, satisfying their implacable urge to heist by having them attempt to rob the Bank of Spain of its gold reserves. Long gone were the days of swinging in a hammock, trying to devise ways to keep costs down. The Netflix backing meant something crucial: money. Lots of it.

Javier Gómez Santander, the head writer, recalls the most immediate effects of this change. “I’ve always wondered, ‘How would it be to write with a big budget?'” he says. “And you realize what it is when you write on your script that it’s actually raining money and it happens. When you write on the script, ‘This takes place in Panama or in the Philippines’, and nobody says no. It actually happens”.

Even though Money Heist concludes this winter, its unexpected global success will undoubtedly be studied for years by executives eager to bottle lightning again. It provides hard evidence that the rules of the entertainment game have shifted in real time. And Netflix, which has set up shop in over 190 countries and has a frighteningly powerful algorithm, is the undisputed juggernaut in this new landscape. The platform makes it possible to go to one place to watch a heady Weimar Republic epic from Germany (Babylon Berlin), a supernatural Egyptian horror series set in the 1960s (Paranormal), or a South Korean medieval zombie drama (Kingdom), all from the comfort of your couch.

Streaming puts a dent in American cultural hegemony by allowing viewers to get served stories directly from all over the world—though not always in their original or intended form. Foreign shows on the app default to the more awkward dubbed setting for first-time watchers, for instance, because of the data-driven (though perhaps imperfect) assumption that this will inspire more people to watch. Money Heist, in part, spurred Netflix to invest hugely in the quality and scope of their alternative-language options, expanding the idea of what a show’s target audience could be.

More than that, it helped expand the idea of what makes for a global story. If Netflix nabbed Money Heist‘s creators a gargantuan viewership, it didn’t alter the inherent DNA of what they were making. “We didn’t want to turn our backs on Spain. We’ve got this Latin passion”, Colmenar explains. “We don’t betray this essence at all in the third and fourth seasons. In fact, we actually have some very specific Spanish references—maybe even more than were included in the first and second seasons”.

Instead of sanding down cultural idiosyncrasies in the hopes of arriving at a big and bland common denominator, they’ve triumphed by employing some old-fashioned storytelling wisdom: The specific is universal. And Money Heist‘s success is a lesson that it’s always worth peering outside your bubble, even and perhaps especially if your bubble is a country that believes itself the center of the universe. Case in point: The show did not do as well in Anglophone areas as it did everywhere else, but it still surpassed Tiger King in viewers.

For Netflix, Money Heist didn’t change its strategy, per se, but it did affirm it. “It just solidifies the fact that great storytelling can come from anywhere”, Ávalos says. “It’s no longer Hollywood determining what stories can work around the world”.

The actors feel the shift too. “Here in Spain you actually hear, ‘Hey, I like the show even though it’s Spanish’. That was the way we used to talk about it”, Acebo says. “I have the feeling that Money Heist has changed the way people regard Spanish fiction. It’s like suddenly a window has opened”. That includes room for criticism: Herrán, for example, thinks that his character could have been “much more” interesting. “I’m a hacker who, in four seasons, never touches a computer”, he says, smiling. “Also, the way I have to handle my relationship with Tokyo—there are things I personally would’ve done differently. But then again, maybe that’s why the show is a success, because the professionals are the ones handling it”.

The show has, however, reoriented the career arcs of its actors in meaningful ways. To make it internationally as a Spanish talent, you previously had to go through Hollywood or be Pedro Almodóvar. But take Corberó, who starred in the American action flick Snake Eyes this summer and has the highest crossover potential. “Imagine you are a Spanish actress. Before, if you had wanted to work in the United States, you would have had to go to the United States”, she says. “Now what has happened is, without leaving our homes, they are watching a series in the U.S. that is not even in English. It’s a Spanish series. This makes me really proud”.

A few days before the Money Heist finale was due to be shot, the entire script was scrapped and reworked. The writers had always worked up until the last minute, right as filming is happening, but this pressure was something else. After all, they had to try to nail the ending while a formidable percentage of the planet was watching, as if they were navigating a moon landing.

“We just didn’t sleep”, Gómez Santander tells me. “We’d be on the phone with each other early in the morning. We were obsessed. I told Álex I didn’t think I would ever get another night of decent sleep in my life until we finally wrote something we liked”. Corberó says, “I don’t know what came over me over the final two weeks, but I couldn’t stop crying. They even had to stop the shooting”. Herrán believes viewers will be pleased with the ending “but for one simple reason—most people like the things I don’t like, like series and things whose success is a mystery. So I’ll start to worry the day I think something is going really well”.

Even with the show wrapped and their futures once again wide open, Money Heist‘s stars are still processing how to be famous. Corberó and Herrán, the two biggest names, tell me that they’ve ended up spending much more time at their homes in Madrid to avoid attracting attention when they go out. Corberó says she sought out therapy to process the shift, saying that it’s “important to do things like that, to keep yourself grounded”. Herrán, meanwhile, has been exceedingly open about how fame has affected his mental health. “I always ask people things I find interesting on social media, like ‘Are you happy with the society in which we live?’ And people aren’t happy”, he says. “I don’t want people to believe that just because you’re famous, you’re happy. And that love, money, work, and life, everything is just fine and great because you’re popular. I’m still a human being like anyone else”.

Fans are clamoring for character spin-offs, and though Pina does not confirm anything in the works, he says that he thinks Tokyo, The Professor, Berlin, and Denver could all carry one. In any case, the Netflix perpetual motion machine keeps grinding along: It’s currently in the midst of producing a South Korean remake helmed by director Kim Hong-sun.

The creators are keeping the details of the final two-part season of Money Heist close to the chest, but they tell me it has been conceived of as a kind of war. As the grand breaking point between the beloved characters and the state, with all the attendant messiness and intensity and difficult decisions that come with that. It’s one last chance to flex a bit, to show just how big they’ve made it since the early days. “We built an entire set—this huge set that only lasted a minute and a half before we exploded it”, Ávalos eagerly shares. And it will, inevitably, include some heartbreak—as Colmenar puts it: “A victimless war is hard to find”. But regardless of the outcome, they’ve managed to convince the world to watch and care about a small local story—and isn’t that, in itself, a victory?

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